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Van den Hul Grail SE Phonostage

AJ. Van den Hul is one of the audio legends, earning renown mainly for his cartridges, including the sizzling Colibri, which truly seems to retrieve information from the grooves of an LP at the speed of light. I remember deploying a Colibri in my system over a decade ago and marveling not only at the top-end extension on cymbals and the like, but also at the whiplash transient speed of the cartridge. It was like injecting high-octane fuel into my system, which was then based around a pair of Magnepan 20.1 loudspeakers.

Fast forward to the present. The eponymous firm of Van den Hul has expanded its efforts to produce a series of solid-state phonostages based on a “current mode” input, a nifty way of transmitting the signal more directly to the phonostage. As it happens, I’ve recently had the opportunity to review the CH Precision P1 with its XI outboard power supply as well as the new Sutherland Loco Phono, both of which also rely on current mode input. Listening to them convinced me of the virtues of a current input, which is intended to be mated to a low-output moving-coil cartridge. The idea is that the energy transfer between an mc cartridge, which outputs a lot of current (rather than voltage), and the input is optimized. This means that there’s no manual loading of impedance to perform. It’s already optimized by the current input. Gain without pain, as it were. For those of you who like to fuss to the nth degree with a vinyl setup, this may come as something of a disappointment, but not for yours truly. Given the technological leaps and bounds that are currently taking place, it seems a pity not to incorporate them, as far as possible, into audio equipment.

As near as I can tell, the sonic advantages of current-mode technology seemed pretty clear. So when I learned that Van den Hul had come out with a new, deluxe version of its balanced Grail SE, I was most eager to try it. I had already heard effusive comments on the audio grapevine about Van den Hul’s entry-level phonostage, which is called the Grail and retails for $9750. The new Special Edition version is much pricier than any previous VDH phonostage, coming in at a not-insubstantial $25,995. What do you get for the extra dough? Two separate power supplies coupled to a main unit that has two distinct amplification sections, plus superior channel separation that is rated at 102dB. The affable importer of Van den Hul products, Randy Forman, sent me one of the first units off the production line, and I was pretty wowed from the outset. This wasn’t one of those products where you engage in a lot of chin-scratching to divine its attributes. It immediately displayed a lot of punch and detail.

As with the other phono- stages in his line, Van den Hul has gone to some lengthy to select and use high-quality parts—gold conducting paths and RIAA equalization with coils alone rather than with capacitors in filters. The Grail SE also gives you a variety of options for adjusting gain for both the moving-coil and moving-magnet sections. The mc input goes from 56dB to 64dB to 73dB. Interestingly, even with the super-low output version of the Lyra Atlas, I found that I could easily employ the 56dB section, an indicator of just how effectively the transfer of energy from a cartridge to the Grail appears to function. In the 56dB setting it sounded lusciously creamy but delivered a smidgen less punch than on the higher setting of 64dB. I never went to 73dB which would have been wildly excessive.

One of the first LPs that I played through the Grail was an old favorite, Jimmy Rushing’s Five Feet of Soul on the Colfax label, reissued by Chad Kassem’s Acoustic Sounds several years ago. Most listeners find the album immediately beguiling, and this was definitely the most powerful and vivid that I’ve heard Rushing and his band sound on my system. Reproducing a big band at full tilt is a really tough job, not least because the sound can often become shrill, even on modern recordings. But on the Colfax pressing, the backing trumpet section came blazing out of the speakers smoothly, yet with impressive alacrity and punch. It almost goes without saying that these venerable recordings do have sonic limitations, but it was instructive to hear how tight Rushing’s band was on numbers like “’Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do.” For any souls who happened to stray into my listening room, this album served, more often than not, as proof positive of the virtues of the Grail. This was goosebump territory. 

Something similar happened on a Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab reissue of KC and the Sunshine Band. For my money, there are few songs that pack as much of a punch as “Get Down Tonight.” This tune, so redolent of the disco-70s, may not have gotten me to do a little dance, but it definitely is a hoot to listen to on a revealing system. The Grail helped reveal the gobsmacking sizzle of this album. The rhythm section had propulsive power, and voices were never congested or murky. Instead, the Grail helped lay down the law.

Another album that I like to use as kind of a test record—a polar opposite of the aforementioned one—is The Soulful Moods of Gene Ammons, which originally appeared on Prestige’s Moodsville label. Here we are luxuriating in a romantic mood, but never in a mawkishly sentimental one. Two standout numbers are “Two Different Worlds” and “But Beautiful.” These are breathy, plangent pieces, at least as performed by Ammons, and the Grail delivered a palpable sense of wistful longing as the decays lingered on into the ether. I always key in on the little things such as fingers manipulating the saxophone pads or intakes of breath. These might seem like extraneous details but they help clue you in to whether a piece of equipment is delivering a more precise rendition of the actual timbre of the saxophone or drums or piano. In this case, the superlatively low noise floor of the Grail hit a homerun. 

The bass control of the Grail was also excellent. Take the Pablo LP Count Basie: Kansas City 5. Basie’s spare piano work came through with taut precision, particularly in the nether regions. There was a sense of lapidary solidity to the sound, of deep and resonant piano notes that hovered in the air for a split second before the rest of the band joined in. On a more contemporary recording, Shelby Lynne’s album Just A Little Lovin’ on 45 rpm, the Grail convincingly reproduced the drums and upright and electric basses, providing a foundation that the Wilson WAMM subwoofers delivered with authority. The well-defined bass also helped to supply a rich sound that never turned overly voluptuous.

How did the Grail stack up against some of its pricier brethren? While it had tremendous dynamics, I never felt that it went as deep into the soundstage as the CH Precision ($89k with dual power supplies) did, which had the blackest soundstage I’ve ever experienced. Nor did it sound quite as ethereal as the Ypsilon VPS 100 phonostage ($26k). Among solid-state units, the Grail is distinguished by its sheer dynamic wallop and superbly low noise floor. It will help to goose just about any set of loudspeakers with its unabashed sonic horsepower. The bottom line is that the Grail brought its own set of attributes to the music—dynamic effervescence coupled with a smooth sound. Kudos to A.J. Van den Hul for not resting on his abundant laurels and striving to produce a top-drawer phonostage that exceeds his previous efforts.

Specs & Pricing

Inputs: Three unbalanced on RCA jacks, three balanced on XLR jacks (one mc, one mm, one switchable between mm and mc) 
Outputs: Unbalanced on RCA jacks, balanced on XLR
Gain: 33, 41, 47, 50dB (mm); 56, 64, 70, 73dB (mc)
Loading settings: 47k (mm); 40–400 ohms (mc)
Signal-to-noise ratio: >70dB
Dimensions: 475mm x 95mm x 335mm (not including power supply)
Weight: 43 lbs. 
Price: $25,995 (with dual outboard power supplies)

AudioShield Distribution 
[email protected]
(908) 902-5887

By Jacob Heilbrunn

The trumpet has influenced my approach to high-end audio. Like not a few audiophiles, I want it all—coherence, definition, transparency, dynamics, and fine detail.

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